Ukrainian Yegor Shyshov claims to be a TV host, though an internet search reveals he’s a soap actor, which makes sense because he’s not very good. His entire story — from describing the positive aspects of having a camera pointed at his apartment door to ensure he wouldn’t open it too many times during quarantine through randomly pulling out a phone to instantaneously check a date — is completely unconvincing. Then we’re expected to believe Doupas just happens to see Algerian acupuncturist Naima Bounoua in a tea house and approaches her table with a camera crew in tow only to have her invite him to her table. Perhaps we’re jaded in America, but it all seems completely ridiculous.
The fact is, this isn’t a documentary, it’s a mondo movie, i.e., a film purporting to be a documentary with a staged narrative. The adjective comes from the oeuvre of Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi, directors of the Mondo Cane films in the 1960s, who stood trial for making horrible things happen in their movies. Whether or not Jacopetti and Prosperi did what their accusers claimed is still up for debate, but the word caught on, and it came to mean exactly what we’re seeing here. It’s evident right in the beginning when Doupas enters a bakery. So the camera just happened to be on the other side of the counter when he came in? Yeah, sure.
That said, director Helene Zhuge knows what she’s doing, at least as a technician. Her shots are beautifully composed, displaying the colorful scenery of Beijing and interesting interior locations. Unfortunately, pretty pictures don’t count for much in a film that’s supposed to be telling the truth.
“…shots are beautifully composed, displaying the colorful scenery…”
So what actually did happen? Does China have it under control? Do they really deserve to pat themselves on the back? Chachy, leader of Shanghai punk band Round Eye, has some questions. “Things are better now. Ironically, that is a benefit to living under strict dictatorship: you can lock everyone up without so much as a whimper of protest,” he asserts. “The official number of deaths from the virus in China is under 5,000. That is simply impossible.” He continues, “They erected two full-scale hospitals in a matter of days and shut down the entire country for two months due to it running rampant on the national holiday of Chinese New Year. Wuhan alone has a population of 11 million. The numbers they gave to WHO and the reaction I saw would have been more accurate to a number of 50-100 thousand dead. By 50-100 thousand dead, I mean specifically to Wuhan alone. God knows what the number nationally would have been. Always understand that when it comes to economy, birthrate, death toll, etc., China always goes big.”
On the other hand, Martin Aamodt, the Danish-born general manager of Mikkeller Shanghai, isn’t as skeptical. “I’ve been living in Shanghai for eleven years, so I consider it home.” He explains, “There are, of course, certain aspects of the governance here that’s questionable by Western standards, but it’s the safest place I’ve ever experienced. COVID was no exception.” He emphasizes, “There are still ongoing COVID scares here, but the government is on top of it.”
So what is the truth? We’ll probably never know. If you’re looking for an in-depth analysis of China’s reaction to COVID, Maizidian isn’t it. If, however, you’re looking for pretty camerawork and a narrative akin to a Sesame Street documentary sequence, here you go. At the very least, it’s a fascinating example of how global events are portrayed beyond our borders.
"…this isn't a documentary, it's a mondo movie..."